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Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy and Early Modern Law: Vindictive Justice.

Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy and Early Modern Law: Vindictive Justice, by Derek Dunne. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016. Pp. ix + 229. Hardcover. $95.00.

In his legally grounded monograph, Derek Dunne upends some of scholars' longstanding assumptions about the gruesome revenge plays that populated the early modern stage. This Hamlet-centric, Fredson Bowers-inherited script hardly needs to be repeated: a single revenger--a melancholic, black-garbed actor brooding over a startlingly white skull--seeks private retribution, one that is inherently antithetical to the "Law." Turning this formula on its head, Dunne argues that early modern dramatic revenge is communal rather than solitary. Moreover, revengers turn to the law even as they commit extra-legal vengeance in plays that are littered with courtrooms, trial scenes, and legally coded laments on justice. In fact, Dunne finds the period's intense demand for these law-infused dramatic revenges to reflect the legal crises that rocked the late sixteenth century. In other words, legal transformation spawned the blood, dismemberment, and Thyestean feasts of early modern stage revenge.

Dunne's project is thus twofold, detailing (1) the communal justice of revenge tragedy while providing (2) a more complex picture of early modern English law, often oversimplified by critics. Dunne is thus in line with Linda Woodbridge's English Revenge Drama: Money, Resistance, Equality (Cambridge, 2010), which finds injustice, legal and otherwise, as central to the early modern revenge play, though he more directly engages with Loma Hutson's foundational work on evidence-gathering and revenge plays in The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (2007).

In chapter 1, Dunne disrupts the "Law" vs. "Revenge" binary too often applied by literary scholars unfamiliar with the period's complicated legal terrain. Rather than present the law as monolithic, Dunne vividly reconstructs the messy everyday experience of the law at work. In light of his informed readings, facile observations about revengers going "outside the law" appear laughably simple. Dunne also explores how revenge was not seen inherently lawless, nor was the law free from revenge, though his analysis on extralegal and legal vengeance would benefit from more clearly defined terms. Simply exploring the word "revenge" would be useful, as the term was not necessarily extra-legal in the period. (1)

After introducing the reader to the socio-legal context, Dunne spends the remainder of the book analyzing individual revenge plays in light of a specific legal issue or crisis: notably, Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and participatory, trial-based justice (chapter 2); Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and the threatened jury (chapter 3); Marston's Antonio's Revenge and the riots of the 1590s (chapter 4); and Chettle's Tragedy of Hoffman and the ambiguous legal status of pirates (chapter 6). Shakespeare's Hamlet (chapter 5) and Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (chapter 7) are both argued to be exceptions to the typical revenge scheme and are, in Dunne's view, uninterested in the participatory justice that was the mainstay of the genre.

Thus Dunne does not simply remove Hamlet from center-stage, but totally uproots it, finding the Danish Prince to be more concerned with kinship than with public justice. In Dunne's narrative, Marston's Antonio's Revenge, cotemporaneous with Hamlet, is the quintessential English revenge tragedy. As such, some of Dunne's biggest claims about the revenge genre occur in his chapter on Marston's play. More than any other play under examination, Antonio's Revenge stages the communal action Dunne takes to be the "key to unlocking the genre's full potential" (5), as Antonio and a group of upset citizens take revenge on a notoriously tyrannical monarch, Piero, and are directly celebrated for their collective murder. Dunne considers the murderous masque, during which Piero is likely forced to eat his murdered son, to be "a form of social protest not unlike that of the early modern riot" (73). Contrasted with the finale's collaborative revenge is Antonio's solitary and vicious murder of the young Julio. Here Dunne powerfully juxtaposes the "Senecan model of a single revenger" (84) with an English model of the group revolting against tyranny.

Dunne goes even further, arguing that English stage revengers belong to a more extensive social network than the isolated tragic hero:
   The crucial difference between revenge tragedy and other early
   modern tragedy is its representation of communal politics in the
   person of the revenger and his accomplices. Unlike Othello or
   Coriolanus who are to a great extent isolated in their tragic
   subjectivity, the protagonist of revenge tragedy is by and large a
   far more socially-constituted individual. (78)

For Dunne, social-mindedness and revenge go hand-in-hand in England's radical plays.

Yet, this account risks both overstating the "political edge" (147) of a tonally odd play like Antonio's Revenge, performed as it was by the Children of St. Paul's, while at the same time minimizing the political energies of the apparently "apolitical" Hamlet and "post-participatory" The Revenger's Tragedy. In fact, one wonders whether a preference for politicalmindedness is behind Dunne's rather narrow definition of the revenge tragedy, which (except for Antonio's Revenge) includes plays only on the public, and not private, stage and ends early with The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), since, in his words, subsequent revenge plays featured single revengers and were written in a context of greater legal stability. Not surprisingly, this end point also occurs just as "villain" revenge plays became popular, if we follow Fredson Bowers's chronology. (2) While Bowers's categories may be limiting in their false evolution from the "Kydian heroic" to the "decadent" revenge plays, they still cover a variety of figures and traditions found within this genre, which has included stealthy, solo revengers from its inception.

For Dunne, these anti-heroic, solitary revengers oppose the conventions of participatory revenge. The bulk of his argument on Hamlet tracks the way Shakespeare sidelines participatory revenge, as communal revenge is only observed momentarily when Laertes storms in with a mob of supporters. As Dunne demonstrates, even Laertes abandons publically-minded revenge, when he teams up with Claudius, using a secret plot that was "foreign to the heroes of revenge tragedy thus far, involving as it does poisoning, subterfuge, and stealth" (112). Yet rather than label poison and subterfuge as "foreign" influences, Dunne might consider them as belonging to a different, though equally English, tradition of stage revenge.

In a similar vein, Dunne persuasively identifies the legal set-pieces in The Revenger's Tragedy as being literary artifacts that no longer guide the play towards its climactic vengeance. Like Laertes, Vindice's revenge is secretive and poisonous. As such, Dunne appears wary of the play's ethical grounding, since "Vindice is no people's champion, nor does he decry the justice system that failed him" (159). For Dunne, it seems, communal justice is not just the key to the early modern revenge play: it is the key to its rehabilitation. If these plays are tarnished by their associations with horrifying gore, exploitative violence, and reactionary politics, they possibly regain moral footing through community engagement.

Even with these limitations, Dunne has located a quite radical politics at the center of some of the earliest revenge plays on the English stage while uncovering a complicated exchange between the law and revenge. Extralegal revenge has never looked so legal.


(1.) See for instance Ronald Broude, "Revenge and Revenge Tragedy in Renaissance England," Renaissance Quarterly, 28 (1975), 38-58.

(2.) Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940).
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Author:Reedy, Katy
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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